It’s an inspiring and invigorating organisation which was intended to be launched later in the year, but which sped up proceedings in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and began its work in earnest this summer.
“It was a slow burn, if you excuse the pun” she laughs, “But everything just accelerated after George Floyd. It was important for us to act on that moment. It opened up a massive dialogue like never before. Now I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with people about the experiences of black people and those micro-aggressions we face all the time; those nuanced elements of racism. That wouldn’t have happened before.”
The former stylist and social media entrepreneur Lisa Maynard Atem, 42, always knew she was destined to do work that made an impact. In fact, it was practically her birthright. Her father worked for the UN, her mother was a charity worker and her sister is a scientist, who works specifically in encouraging young girls to get into STEM.
For Lisa, this meant harnessing her existing skill set as Harrods’ first-ever social media manager (she created their Instagram and got it to 1m followers) and founder of her own consultancy ‘The Social Word’ to raise awareness for causes she cared about- namely black business, black representation in business and economic equality.
“It’s always been the case that I am one of a few black faces if not the only black face,” she says, “I’ve certainly been in situations where I’ve lost out on opportunities because of the colour of my skin. Why are we so underrepresented? I always wanted to do something to address the issue.”
It was this passion that grew into BURN (Black United Representation Network) a freshly launched initiative which aims to aid black businesses and strives to achieve parity of opportunity for black professionals in Lisa’s hometown of Manchester. It is the result of years of conversations with her friend and mentor Dr Marilyn Comrie OBE (award-winning entrepreneur and green tech innovator) – one of BURN’s founding members.
Indeed, Lisa shares that she has often found it difficult to discuss racism and the negative experiences and barriers often faced by black people.
“People always get nervous when, as a black person you start talking about race. It’s like people who retort when you say black lives matter and say ‘all lives matter’ – that’s not what we are saying – it’s about equality!” she says, “I just don’t want to lose out on a job because of the colour of my skin. It’s as simple as that. We just want what we’ve never experienced. We want the doors to be open for us and a seat at the table. We just want the opportunity to be treated as equals.”
Her own career has been a fascinating trajectory of gumption, entrepreneurial spirit and fateful encounters. She left school at 16, joined numerous training courses – eventually attaining a degree in graphic design- and worked in everything from marketing in healthcare and fashion styling to luxury retail in Harvey Nichols, Manchester.
It was there she was essentially head-hunted by a senior Harrods manager, who admired her honesty and know-how. She was eventually asked to join Harrods- making the move to London – where she created the role of social media manager for herself, before leaving to start her own consultancy. She is now an associate lecturer at the London College of Fashion.
She speaks very highly about her time at Harrods, where she says she never experienced any racial prejudice- something she admits (sadly) is rare.
“Many years ago, I once went for an interview and was met with ‘I didn’t realise you were black – you don’t come across black on your CV’,” she explains, “The fact that this person felt it was perfectly acceptable to say this to me, speaks for itself. Aside from this, I have experienced the usual racism – name calling, monkey noises. The sad reality is that my parents had to ensure that from a very young age, I was aware that people would dislike me purely because of the colour of my skin. When you are a person of colour, you simply get used to and learn to live with racism.”
Being her own boss has come with the benefits of not having to endure pernicious racist comments in the workplace. It’s why she feels so passionately about aiding black businesses through BURN.
“We set it up to challenge and tackle persistent racial inequalities in Greater Manchester which negatively impact people of African descent, to bring about systemic change.” she says, “Greater Manchester has an acute shortage of people of African descent in senior leadership positions that can influence policy and decision-making. This shortage has resulted in growing racial inequalities. Our mission is to achieve parity and equality of opportunity covering health, business, education, employment and skills training. We will achieve this through leadership, procurement and international trade to drive economic empowerment.”
The group has already attracted a lot of attention and calls have been made for them to expand beyond Manchester- something Lisa says is in the works, but which will have to wait. For now, her beloved Manchester is the focus.
They have strong links with the city and are currently petitioning the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to ring fence 1% of the annual £8billion budget to be allocated to black businesses to help them weather this economic and Covid storm. That would amount to roughly £80million. BURN are also speaking to key people in the region about getting more black people into leadership roles.
“It’s that whole “see me be me” thing,” explains Lisa, “At the moment there are so few black people in leadership roles in the greater Manchester area.”
BURN have already made huge strides and are even working on improving trade links with Africa – a burgeoning market.
“We have successfully lobbied for the creation of a race equality panel to advise Metro Mayor, Andy Burnham which is due to be launched imminently,” she details, “We were recently awarded £5,000 from Forever Manchester to design and deliver a leadership programme called ‘Restore, Strengthen and Scale Up’ for the Black Third Sector in Greater Manchester. A total of twenty organisations from across the city region will be supported over a six-month period and the programme will be delivered online.”
You can see Lisa’s abundant passion for the project and her excitement is not unfounded. BURN may have already made some huge changes, but the initiative- and Lisa- are just getting started.
“I don’t want young girls coming up behind me to experience what I have,” she concludes, “You will never wipe out racism in its entirety, but if we will try and make the playing field fairer.”